Remembering the ice storm of 2002

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 11, 2011

By Elizabeth Cook
Forecasts of ice and snow bring back the sights, sounds and smells of December 2002.
Ice-laden trees bowed over roadways and power lines, emitting loud cracks as limbs broke under the weight. Sparks flew from transformers as they buzzed and then went dead.
Diesel-fueled generators sputtered into action and belched out fumes.
And then there was the foolish feeling of habitually flipping on light switches, only to remember that the power was out.
An ice storm on Dec. 4, 2002, set off a cascade of falling tree limbs and vehicle accidents across much of the state. Overnight, 46,000 Duke Power customers in Rowan County and 25,000 in Kannapolis found themselves without power — a situation some would be in for a week.
National Weather Service officials called the winter blast a “complete disaster.”
Duke Power officials had choice words too. “This is the worst ice storm we’ve seen,” said E.O. Ferrell, senior vice president of electric distribution. Duke reported 1.3 million customers without electricity. Crews came in from 15 other states to help restore power to ice-coated North Carolina.
The record number of outages for Duke before the 2002 storm was 685,000, the result of Hurricane Hugo.
Electricity even went out at Rowan’s Emergency Services headquarters, immediately triggering a generator to power the station.
Some highlights from the weeklong adventure in powerlessness, as reported in the Post:
Dec. 5: Officials in Rowan open shelters at the Salisbury and South Rowan YMCAs and the Rowan County Rescue Squad on Julian Road. The Red Cross opens a Kannapolis shelter at Jackson Park Elementary School but has to move it when the power goes out there, too. Slippery roads take their toll; a Kannapolis woman riding in a car on Saw Road is the first fatality.
Dec. 6: Emergency dispatchers report fielding 2,229 phone calls in a 24-hour period — the average is 800 — including 1,230 calls for service. Callers report 116 downed trees, along with wrecks, fires and other mishaps. People without power at home swarm stores for warmth and restaurants for hot meals. Wink’s Barbecue runs out of food. Hospitals see dozens of carbon monoxide poisonings from people bringing outdoor grills inside to try to stay warm. The Rowan County Board of Commissioners declares a state of emergency.
Dec. 7: “Slow going on recovery,” says a Salisbury Post headline. Duke Power projects that 90 percent of its outages will be restored by Dec. 11, a week after the storm. Filling stations begin running out of gas from all the people filling generators. chain saws and automobiles. An armada of cherry picker trucks uses Lowe’s Motor Speedway as a staging area. Christmas festivities are put on hold as events ranging from the city’s first City Park tree-lighting ceremony to Central Methodist’s Singing Christmas Tree are postponed.
And after 48 hours without a shower, the novelty of roughing it has worn off.
Dec. 8: National Guard members go door-to-door in Salisbury while volunteer firefighters canvass their districts making sure everyone is OK. About 100 people are staying in shelters. People line up for showers at the YMCA shelters — more than 400 in one day at the South Y. Stress builds as people deal with inoperable traffic lights, threatened food supplies, dwindling drinking water, carbon monoxide poisonings and confusion about school schedules.
Dec. 9: Duke Power passes the halfway mark on its way to restoring power throughout the region. An elderly Kannapolis woman dies after falling down a flight of stairs in her darkened home.
Dec. 10: Outages are down to 16,000 in the Salisbury District. Among those getting electricity again are the Wiley School Apartments, where residents have been making coffee and hot chocolate with water heated by a propane tank, and former building owner Joe Taylor has been taking food.
Dec. 11: More than 8,000 Duke customers in the Salisbury District and under 2,000 Kannapolis customers remain without power. Rowan and Salisbury officials estimate cleaning up after the storm will cost about $1 million. A representative of the Federal Emergency Management Agency meets with local officials to discuss which expenses FEMA might be able to cover.
Dec. 12: “We’re vagabonds,” Mitchell Avenue resident Trish Dunn says as a small pocket of houses continued to be without power — though Duke Power has them on the “power restored” list.
But the hardships of the storm brings out the good in people.
Olan Jones of Sells Road was concerned about two elderly couples down the road who had health problems and lost power for several days — Archie and Virginia Gentle and C.C. and Ruth Trexler, all relatives of his wife.
“The power trucks had been within 100 feet of their houses,” Jones told a Post reporter in 2002. “They’ve been all over this road. Everybody’s been called, and they kept telling us the next day. I was afraid these old people were going to be dead.”
He drove to work on the morning of the sixth or seventh day, “and lo and behold! there at Village Grocery sat one of those beautiful orange trucks,” he said.
“I never liked those colors before, but I told the driver about these people, and he said, ‘I’ll follow you down and see what you’re talking about,’ and he followed me down 601 to Sells Road and said, ‘Give me 10 minutes or so and I’ll have the power back on.’ And he did …
“And I promised the guy — he was from somewhere in Florida — I’d bring him a cup of coffee, and my mother-in-law made him a pot full, but I never did find him.”
Contact Elizabeth Cook at 704-797-4244.